Washington State puts an end to lunch shaming in schools

Detractors warn against unknown costs, while advocates say it’s about time.

It’s bad enough when students can’t afford school lunch, forced by their circumstances to go hungry during class. But schools across the country add insult to empty stomachs with a practice known as “lunch shaming”: serving students differently when they fall behind on meal payments.

Now, students in the Evergreen State can no longer be stigmatized when their lunch money runs out—served a cold sandwich when everyone else gets freshly cooked fare, or marked with the scarlet letter of a hand stamp. Signed last week by Democratic Governor Jay Inslee, the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act will require schools to serve a hot meal to any student requesting one, regardless of their ability to pay.

“School food is often not seen as a school issue, which is a problem philosophically within our country.”
Current lunch shaming methods vary by district. For example, in Seattle, the most populous city in the state, students who owe lunch money are given cold alternatives to hot meals. At my former high school, in neighboring Mercer Island, students were simply turned away from the lunch line when their balance dipped past a $5 deficit. The new bill, sponsored by State Representative Strom Peterson, a Democrat from the 21st district, categorically bans any and all of these practices—addressing both social anxiety and child hunger in one legislative swoop.

“Children should not go hungry or be humiliated because they cannot afford lunch that day,” says Peterson, in a press release. “This new law will help ensure that our school districts are not stigmatizing kids and that our state’s students are getting the nutrition they need to succeed in school.”

The law is significant because it bridges a major gap in institutional responsibility for school nutrition, says Christine Tran, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington College of Education, who focuses on school nutrition equity.

“Teachers are trained to teach curricular content, administrators are trained to run schools, and school food is often not seen as a school issue, which is a problem philosophically within our country,” Tran tells me, in an interview by phone. But the new bill makes clear who’s responsible for ensuring no student goes unfed during the day: schools themselves.

The law is significant because it bridges a major gap in institutional responsibility for school nutrition.
To that end, the bill goes far beyond the promise of a shame-free lunch. It also explicitly puts the onus on schools to reach out to families with lunch debt, working to facilitate enrollment in free or reduced-price meals programs (FRPMs). Under the act, schools must now “exhaust all options to directly certify the student for free or reduced-price meals.” Direct certification is a means of determining FRPM eligibility that doesn’t require parental action—a way to enroll students using available social welfare data, including household participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps).

The bill’s detractors are concerned about the financial toll the of the new law, as many school lunch programs already run a deficit. But momentum for lunch shaming bans is growing elsewhere. Last year, New Mexico became the first state to ban the practice. Texas followed suit shortly after. Earlier this year, New York‘s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed doing the same, and lawmakers in Minnesota are currently considering a similar bill.

“With social media, in today’s age, it can be much easier to broadcast that [lunch shaming is] happening,” says Emily Chatelain, founder and CEO of the School Food and Wellness Group, a school food programs consulting firm. “It’s just more of a sensational story now. That’s kind of why I think it’s been a slow change across states, because they’re just now finding out about it and learning from other states.”

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.